Filmmaker to Get ‘High on Ludlow Street’ with New Documentary [INTERVIEW]
One filmmaker is on a quest exhume the history of Ludlow Street with a forthcoming documentary series called High on Ludlow Street. What follows is an interview with Charles Libin, who talks about the so-called “gift of Ludlow,” memories on the block, challenges of making the film, and the current state of his beloved street. Readers are encouraged to submit stories of their experiences.
Bowery Boogie: What prompted you to tackle the dynamic history of Ludlow Street?
Charles Libin: When COVID hit and we had a months-long lockdown in NYC, our film community hunkered down and stayed home. I’m a cinematographer and, for the first time, I was not prepping a job, shooting a job, or enduring angst about when the next job would come. With my friends experiencing the same, we shared a melancholy comfort. The empty streets conjured memories of my youth in the 1970s; I grew up on West 100th Street.
The early part of the lockdown I spent scanning negatives and slides of old photographs. It got me reflecting on those days – my kids are now the age I was when I lived on Ludlow Street. I lived on the top floor of 176 Ludlow from 1980 through 1990. After a horrendous fire in the building, I renovated the apartment next door. (When behind on the rent, I often did renovation work for my landlords Mark and Elliot.) A mysterious, alluring woman moved into that adjacent apartment in 1985. We met on the day of hurricane Gloria, fell in love, combined our apartments, eloped, and our son was born in 1989.
It’s funny to think back, that if not for that fire, I never would have met my wife.
There is a powerful love and pride that those who live or lived on the LES share. Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, Dominicans, Chinese, so many ethnicities have called it home – that’s what makes it special. Much of the neighborhood and family vibe has disappeared, yet still exists in pockets if you look carefully.
I then began researching the history of Ludlow Street, connecting with old friends and first interviewing those I knew. Our chats would end with them suggesting “Hey – you should talk to so and so…” Before I knew it, I was in touch with the Dominican families of the Bodega I used to frequent, musicians who rehearsed in the basements, former gang members, drug dealers, artists, shop owners, even families who lived in my building back in the 1960s.
When I first landed on Ludlow in 1980, there was one place to eat on the street – El Sombrero (The Hat) – that was it. Musician Zeena Parkins shared, “When I first moved to Ludlow, it was dark at night, and there was nothing open, there were no bars. The only activity was basically the drug activity, the drug lines and the transactions. It was dark, and it was scary. I remember many a night taxi drivers would not go down Ludlow, they would drop me off at Katz’s. I would have a couple of bags on my shoulders and my troubadour harp, and would basically run from Katz’s to my door.”
Ulli Rimkus, co-founder of the COLAB Artist collective, opened Max Fish in the storefront of my building in 1989. She brought a lovely vibe to the block. Max Fish was an oasis, with its disparate tribe of misfits; Alleged Gallery was opened by Aaron Rose who had worked at Ricky’s on 1st Avenue; Shakespeare in the Parking Lot down on Ludlow and Broome was a trip.
Carlo McCormick said it best: “Ludlow Street was just another Lower East Side gutter of low rent tenement dreams that just so happened to have a phenomenally deep demographic of artists, musicians, film-makers, designers, writers and all around hoodlums.”
BB: What initially drew you to the Lower East Side, and what was it that prompted you to exit?
CL: I was living in a loft on Broadway and just got tired of sharing with others. I decided I wanted to live alone wherever it took me. I heard about these two landlords on Ludlow (Mark and Elliot) who had cheap apartments, no questions asked. In those days, there was no credit check, just a handshake, one month’s rent and security. I loved it, salsa on the radios, domino games on the street. I interviewed filmmaker Jeff Preiss who expressed it perfectly: “The whole Dominican scene was wonderful. That was the heaven aspect of it. Every family just had their door open, kids running around, and cooking. It was super lovely. And then there was the drug thing that was super-dark.”
It was around the time our son was born in 1989 that the situation worsened. There had been shootouts; a gang was trying to muscle in on the dealers a few doors down and there were some attempted drive-by hits. I watched sweet kids grow into gangbangers. Crack hit and the streets became crazy manic. A friend in our building got hooked fast and it was hard to witness her descent. “Operation Pressure Point” was a whack-a-mole revolving door circus with dealers bailed out by their bosses and back on the streets days later. Many of the parents died of AIDS, overdosed, or were incarcerated. Most of the kids growing up were raised by grandparents. Our landlords made a deal with us and we moved to Brooklyn.
BB: Any crazy-but-true stories to share?
We discovered an anonymous letter written in 1900 to the Eldridge Street Precinct complaining of “a saloon at 138 Ludlow Street that is a hang out for gamblers, crooks, and disorderly women who entice men and rob them. A few days ago I entered said place, was enticed upstairs and robbed of $12.” In 1983 Mary Adams opened her first The Dress shop with Amy Downs in that storefront. It’s funny, Mary, Amy and many women on the block, including artist Ellen Berkenblit, sewed their fashion creations on old Singer machines in the same apartments the sweatshops churned out garments generations earlier.
I interviewed Myk Jay, a former member of the Broome Street Boys gang, who described his “hangout” 75 years later: “The building at 95 Ludlow had a basement, a pretty large basement, and we turned it into our clubhouse. When we paid the landlord like $100 a month, we’d give him what was called a “goodie bag,” a couple joints, some pills, maybe a bag of dope or coke. We had it hooked up down there with a refrigerator, stove, bathroom, you know, we had everything we needed. I was nine years old and the guys that I was hanging with were like 16, 17, 20.
Incidentally Myk later became a closer at a financial firm with offices in Tower 2 of the WTC. He missed his train and arrived downtown on 9/11 to see both towers hit. Many of his colleagues perished.
BB: What challenges have you faced while putting together this project?
The main challenge is reaching back to former tenants who would now be between 75 and 90 years old. We’ve found a few, but are seeking more. We do have an incredible team of research detectives who are scouring census records and old news clippings. The stories will be told in the words of those who were there or those of descendants who recount family lore. I’m not going to have any “talking heads” in the tradition of Ken Burns.
The gift of Ludlow Street is the wealth of creative people who lived there. They provide a Pandora’s box of photographs, SX-70s, Super-8, 16mm, video, family snapshots, artworks depicting themselves, friends, and Ludlow characters, as well as the images of the street scenes. We also will build a scale model of several Ludlow blocks.